J.T. Miller had a lot to live up to this season.
He wasn’t the biggest name moved at the draft in June, with P.K. Subban’s trade from Nashville to New Jersey stealing the headlines. But Miller fetched a first-round pick and a third-round pick for the next draft, and given how first-rounders don’t come cheap, that was a big price to pay for a player coming off a slower campaign than he was becoming accustomed to. But it’s clear it was the deal the Canucks needed to make, and Miller has been vital to the team’s strong October.
With two goals on Monday evening – his fourth multi-point performance of the season – Miller sits second in Canucks scoring with 13 points in 11 games, the hottest start of his NHL career. Miller producing at a high level isn’t new: a three-time 20-goal scorer, he had 56 points in 2016-17 with the New York Rangers and 58 the following year with New York and Tampa Bay. When the Lightning added Miller to the fray, it was clear he was there to bolster the team’s Stanley Cup hopes, but that he wouldn’t have as much of an offensive impact. A 13-goal, 47-point campaign with Tampa Bay last season tied him with Tyler Johnson for seventh on the team in scoring.
That’s why a move to Vancouver has helped re-ignite Miller’s flame. Miller saw his ice time bounce from 14:40 with Tampa Bay to 18:45 this season under coach Travis Green, who hasn’t hesitated to use him for heavy, and important, minutes each night. And it’s not exactly a surprise as to why he’s lighting it up this season, either: among lines with at least 90 minutes of ice time together, the trio of Miller, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser sit second in expected goals percentage with 66.7.
Possession-wise, Miller has been spectacular. At all strengths, Miller sits first on the Canucks with a 70.95 Corsi-for percentage and is tied for third among Vancouver forwards with a 76.92 goals-for percentage. Miller’s points-per-60 sits at 3.78, blowing his 2.56 rate from last season out of the water – albeit, in a smaller sample size.
Having Miller in the fold is exactly what the Canucks needed to help spice up a top-six with talent, but in need of more balance. After Boeser, Pettersson played with Nikolay Goldobin (462:04 in all situations) and Josh Leivo (435:55) the most – a current AHLer and a third liner (but a good one at that). With Miller now in the lineup, the Canucks control just over 21 percent of the expected goals with him on the ice than without him, so it’s hard to ignore how impactful he has been.
With a 7-3-1 record, the Canucks are outperforming expectations in the early going, The Canucks sit tied for ninth in league scoring with 40 goals through 11 games (three fewer games than a handful of teams so far), which is 10 more than what the club had at this point last year. Pettersson had only played in five of Vancouver’s first 11 games but had five goals and eight points, so it’s hard to compare the numbers based on the sample size. But if you take Miller’s numbers now and throw him onto the team last year, his six goals would put him just one behind Bo Horvat for the team lead. That’s a big difference-maker.
It’s early, but Miller has been exactly what the Canucks needed to help kick-start the offense in Vancouver, a franchise that’s near the final days of a rebuild. He’s versatile: even if he’s not scoring, you can rely on his defense and he’ll bring the grit that’s missing from Pettersson and Boeser. Could Miller hit close to the 70-point mark? He’s on pace for more than 100 right now, so 70, especially alongside Pettersson, could be attainable. But more than anything, it’s clear that giving him a prominent role with two of Vancouver’s top young forwards and making him the veteran presence the Canucks truly needed has been big for the club so far.